No one knows how many people died in Idaho from the 1918 influenza pandemic, but retired public health official Dr. Ginger Floerchinger-Franks thinks she may have a pretty good idea. She has been researching the pandemic for over five years to write a book, and was shocked to discover how many deaths were actually recorded.
“When I started there weren’t any statistics because the board of public health wasn’t a department yet,” said Floerchinger-Franks. “I thought it couldn’t have hit us the way it did the rest of the nation, but it did. It’s so parallel to what’s happening now, too.”
According to her research, the 1918 flu hit Idaho much harder than anyone originally thought. The state was hit by a second, and then a third, wave. It affected Idaho in many of the same ways the current pandemic is today, and as a memory, it was collectively repressed until the onset of COVID-19.
Idaho’s first wave of the flu began around September. On Sept. 27, 1918, the Public Health Service began to require states to report cases. According to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, the number of cases had grown so quickly after two weeks that the state couldn’t keep an accurate tally.
Over the course of her research, Floerchinger-Franks looked at over 19,000 death certificates and found that many causes of death weren’t recorded at all, some were recorded incorrectly or the cause of death had been simply left blank. Additionally, many doctors reported pneumonia instead of flu to avoid quarantining patients, although most people who died of pneumonia at the time were first sick with the flu.
Floerchinger-Franks estimates 2,397 people in Idaho died from the flu and 95,000 people fell ill over a three-year period in the Gem state. The 1920 census puts the population of Idaho at 431,866; at least 22% of the population was infected.
Similar to how COVID-19 affects minority populations at a disproportionate rate, Idaho’s Native population in 1918 was heavily affected. A public health record from June 1919 shows that out of a total population of 4,208 Natives, there were 650 cases and 75 deaths, a case mortality rate of 11.5%. A second wave followed in April of 1919.
According to Nez Perce Tribe Cultural Research Program Director Nakia Williamson, the death records he has seen from the time show that most of the deaths came from disease and not natural causes. He said there are gravesites on the reservation showing whole families that died. Though the flu was devastating, he said, their survival and how they have passed down the story of that time shows resilience.
“We have a shared collective memory of these past epidemics because of our culture,” said Williamson. “A few generations back isn’t that far away from us because we are so close to family and we’re taught that when something of this magnitude happens, it’s a time of great reflection for our people and to remember we are all connected.”
Today, many Native people still live in multi-generational, multi-family households, and according to the Indian Health Service, the public health threat from COVID-19 to Native people is very high. On May 1, the Nez Perce reservation had its first confirmed case of COVID-19. By May 18, there has been evidence of communal spread and 17 cases confirmed. Chantel Greene from the Nez Perce Tribe Executive and Health and Welfare Committees said the tribe is focused on putting the health of its community first and won’t open its own economy on the same schedule as the State of Idaho.
“There’s still concerns because our families live so close,” said Greene. “Everything becomes really dependent on other people’s behavior, and people need to make choices about what’s best for the entire population.”
During the 1918 pandemic, the choices people made also affected the entire population, and disregard to the public health threats may have exacerbated the problem. Floerchinger-Franks believes the second wave in Boise may be attributed to an Armistice Day parade on Nov. 11, 1918.
In a book titled The Other Idahoans: Forgotten Stories of the Boise Valley, Todd Shallat also notes that the parade in Boise may have spread the infection. The Idaho Statesman reported at the time that 10,000 people took to the streets, and only one person wore a face mask. Boiseans, he said, have whitewashed and sugarcoated the past in order to tell themselves a more pleasant story.
“I think cities have a certain psychotherapy just like people do,” said Shallat. “The past we choose to remember or forget tells a story within itself. That pandemic is actually a lot like this one now, where people are getting hit with a lot of unexpected things and don’t know how to process it.”
That sentiment echoes all over the U.S., not just in Idaho. People forgot about the devastation of the pandemic. There are hardly any monuments and the theory is that due to the trauma of World War I people just wanted to celebrate victory and move on. An article in The New York Times states, “the pandemic somehow vanished from public imagination.”
The City of Boise, however, is working to ensure that doesn’t happen with the current pandemic, archiving materials through the Covid Cultural Commissioning Fund. Brandi Burns, manager of history programs at the Boise City Department of Arts and History, said now is the time to begin looking at how this historical moment is remembered in the future.
“It’s important to document because as you can see people have a really short memory,” said Burns. “It’s helpful for people to stop and think about what they’re going through not just for the future, but to cope now.”
The 1918 flu infected around one-third of the world’s population, killed 17 million-50 million people and changed the way society managed infectious diseases. Some say the worldwide disaster that slipped societies’ collective memories is playing out again in 2020.
Floerchinger-Franks found a 1918 editorial from the American Journal of Public Health that, reading it today, she said drips with irony. In it, Editor A.W. Hedrich wrote, “The saddest shortcoming revealed by the epidemic was the lack of a detailed plan for meeting exactly such a catastrophe…We shall never be found in a similar predicament, for from the devastation of this epidemic will follow preparations against its repetition.”
“They got together and said it wouldn’t happen again, and yet here we are because we don’t pay attention,” said Floerchinger-Franks. “I hope this time is different.”